A behind-the-scenes look at the nation's foremost stunt burger makers.
Doughnut cheesesteak burgers. Deep-fried Hot Pocket bun burgers. Fried chicken and fried beer burgers. Deep-fried Twinkie burgers. Deep-fried peanut-butter-and-jelly burgers. Deep-fried lasagna bun burgers. These are the work of PYT, a Philadelphia restaurant with a knack for adding headline-grabbing contributions to the burger lexicon. But according to PYT owner Tommy Up, he's "always been obsessed with the classic American burger." There's more than wacky buns and crazy sauces behind PYT.
What Is PYT?
The short answer is that PYT is a burger-focused restaurant and bar in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia, in a development called the Piazza. [Update: In October 2015, Up closed the Piazza location to relocate at the Fillmore, a concert venue in Northern Liberties.] According to its website and the general consensus, PYT is the "home of America's craaaziest burgers" [sic] which debut as part of its "Burger of the Week Club." The menu includes a mix of traditional and non-traditional burgers, playful bar foods, and boozy milkshakes. Up operates the restaurant with his culinary partner-in-crime chef Kim Malcolm, who he describes as "speaking a second language with me" when it comes to thinking outside the burger and shake box.
"I have always been obsessed with the classic American burger."
The long answer stretches back to Up's teenage years as a burger flipper and ice cream scooper along Atlantic City's boardwalk and what he describes as "too many episodes of Happy Days." "Arnold's was the spot! Everything happened there," Up enthusiastically explains. "It's like how every bartender has seen Cocktail but won't admit it. But I think that [Happy Days] is where my love of the American burger joint started."
After working "every job in a restaurant," Up climbed the Philly ranks as a marketer and promoter, including a stint marketing legendary local restaurateur Stephen Starr's nightclub the Bank. ("It was the nightclub everyone went to," Up explains.) "The next step was having an idea for a restaurant, but I never wanted to open one since I worked in so many. I knew how much work it was." Just over five years ago, Up took a marketing job for a developer who was at work building the Piazza at Northern Liberties.
Up pitched a burger restaurant to the developer, hoping to get into one of the still-available spaces at the Piazza. "I thought I wanted to open a bar or a club, but I felt like there wasn't enough there to be able to express myself," Up recalls. "But I thought burgers made sense." The opening process was quick, and within a few months, Up finally had his own burger restaurant and bar in PYT. That was in 2009.
The "craaazy" burgers started following the restaurant's first winter. After Up spent a major snowstorm playing hunting video games with his staff, he was inspired to introduce a limited run of free-range antelope burgers, since antelope was one of the targets in the game. From there the off-the-wall burger ideas just kept coming. "Our customers were always giving us ideas, and we just started listening to them and remixing burgers." And so the Burger of the Week Club was born, and it has ran for almost five consecutive years.
Up notes that today his "customers are remarkably adventurous. About half always try the new burger. The other half, and people who are here for the first time, either stay towards the safer side or go totally adventurous and get a doughnut bun." Up says the range of burgers on his and Malcolm's menu — which includes a classic cheeseburger and a white bean veggie burger — helps guests feel comfortable from the get-go. "We want people to try everything and take leaps," he adds.
What Makes a Good Burger? What About a Good Crazy Burger?
Up defines a good burger in terms of impressions. "It's the beef, the look of it, the anticipation of it." For PYT's standard burgers, Malcolm uses a chuck blend that's a bit fattier than the typical 80-20, keeping it at 22-24 percent fat "depending on what's available." She uses a brisket blend for some of the specialty burgers. The beef comes from a century-old local purveyor who grinds fresh for PYT every day. Up reveals more secrets he says he's never told on the record: "We try to mimic a char by putting a pretty moderate amount of brown and white sugar in the spice blend we put on the patty. It caramelizes pretty well without smashing the shit out of it. We use the sugar as a hack for pressed char. And you don't really taste it."
"It takes a special kind of idiot to be that dumb."
But Up says a good crazy burger is "hard to define." He is able to tease out some guidelines, though. It's "definitely not a random combination of ingredients or a combination that only makes sense in the creator's head" — the components need to "go together and click," he says of the inspiration. "Sometimes we're really food and taste inspired. Sometimes it's a Drake song." Past Burger of the Week Club members have included an Anchorman-inspired Burgundy's Scotch Fondue Burger with a Scotch egg-stuffed beef patty, the Szechuan Lamb Burger with cilantro garlic sticky rice buns, and the Souf Philly Burger, a hot Italian sausage and beef blend patty topped with broccoli rabe, provolone, and sauteed long hot peppers on an Amoroso kaiser roll — Philly accent included in the name. "If it strikes a chord in me; if I would be interested in seeing it like, 'Wow that must taste great!' or 'How is that made?,'" that's what makes a great burger, Up excitedly says. "There has to be some element of surprise when customers see it or some type of unexpected delight when they bite into it."
There is one other avenue for PYT to green-light a burger test: "If it's a really, really dumb idea." PYT's infamous Twinkie burger falls into that category, says Up. "It takes a special kind of idiot to be that dumb." Up's only rule for his crazy burgers is no copying — if it's a "basic twist" fine, but PYT "won't do one that anyone else has done that we know about." (Yes, that means he Googles the burger ideas to make sure they aren't inadvertently copying.)
In order for a crazy burger to make the permanent menu, people have to be ordering it. Even when some of the PYT burgers have been internet hits, "it might be too extreme or it won't work well enough to be a constant order," and those won't make the menu. "If my dad — who has had every burger we've ever done — tells me it's on his top list, if our regulars are asking for it, that's when we'll put it in our hall of fame." Doughnut buns have been such a consistent hit that now PYT can put any of their burgers on a doughnut bun. Sometimes burgers Up thought were delicious just don't take off the way he wants, like a fried guacamole burger Up calls "one of the greatest burgers we've ever done."
While a "dumb idea" might be the inspiration, there are plenty of ideas that never land on the "Burger of the Week Club" menu, let alone the permanent one. When asked what never made it out of the kitchen, Up quickly answers "dozens of things as buns. Mashed potato buns are more difficult than you think." He goes on, "Fried beer made the cut and maybe it shouldn't have."
Case Study: PYT's Quest for the Ultimate Pizza Burger
To really understand the recipe development process at PYT, look no further than the team's obsessive focus on the pizza burger. "We've been taking stabs at the perfect pizza burger for years," says Up. "We try to make it different each time." Two years ago there was the BBQ Chicken Pizza Burger, which topped a beef patty with cheddar, mozzarella, chicken, and barbecue sauce. For a bun, Malcolm sourced ciabatta from Philadelphia bakery Le Bus. About a year ago Up and Malcolm unveiled a burger where the buns were actually deep-fried slices of frozen Ellio's pepperoni pizzas and the beef patty was spiced like a meatball. "It's a major research project," Up says of their ongoing quest.
PYT's newest take continues with the deep-fried Ellio's slices as buns, but instead of a meatball patty, Malcolm deep-fries a ground chicken patty, and tops it with Frank's Red Hot. It's basically pizza and wings in one burger, and both Up and Malcolm seem pretty happy with it. This latest iteration graced the menu in late March, about a week after Eater got the behind-the-scenes look below.
Where Does PYT Go From Here?
Burger-wise, Up and Malcolm could go anywhere their imaginations and deep fryers take them. Since doughnut buns have gotten so popular, PYT is working towards making them in-house. The pizza burger research will of course continue.
PYT is also going to be expanding in the next few years. This summer, Up will open in New York City. He has his eye on Brooklyn. In early 2014, PYT also signed on with consulting firm Fransmart, who drove nationwide expansions for Five Guys and Qdoba. Opening in Washington, DC is on Up's mind; so is Boston. He thinks Portland, OR would be a great fit. But Up isn't too interested in speaking about the nuts and bolts of franchising, and isn't worried about brand dilution. "We're just trying to make people happy and make some fucking cool burgers."